Words by Neil Boland
Photography by Kim Lajoie
The voice is the only instrument we get for free. No haggling in guitar stores, or blowing half of your life savings on a grand piano with a German name. For the instruments we pay for and can hold in our hands, we will freely and regularly spend good money on maintenance. But the poor old voice is often neglected or abused, sometimes in the name of achieving a distinctive character or sometimes through bad technique.
Austrian-Australian Gerald Marko moved to Melbourne over a decade ago, after many gruelling years as an 80s-style rock metal singer and a six-year stint of eight-shows-a-week in musical theatre. He knows the ins and outs of the results of good and bad technique, having become one of Australia’s few accredited Estill Voice Training teachers.
The late Jo Estill was a voice researcher and teacher from Pennsylvania USA. To say Estill treated voice research as a science is an understatement. Over many decades, she used any medical technology she could access – electroglottography, voice signal analysis, X-rays of the phonating larynx, laryngeal fibre endoscopy, acoustic measurements and simultaneous videostroboscopy – to study the mechanics of the voice. The results have benefited thousands of vocalists worldwide, whether novice or at a professional level, most of which were looking for a way to sing that no longer caused pain or injury.
Gerald Marko encountered the Estill Voice Training(TM) model shortly after arriving in Melbourne, looking for a technique that would enhance his singing without fatigue.
“I’m now a voice mechanic,” says Marko.
Marko discovered through the Estill model that there are many moving parts of the voice, like there are of a car’s engine. Those moving parts are covered in his teachings.
“We are teaching differentiated muscular control of thirteen structures. In the level one course, we take the instrument apart. And we look at each of the thirteen structures and try to identify them and control those parts individually. As you do this, you start to figure out, ‘when I change this, this is what happens, when I change that, that is what happens.’”
In any profession, a person who wants competency will often first have to learn how their tools work. And Marko hails the Estill model for being multi-parts-focused, rather than revolving around an obsession with a single part or the engine. The revelation he experienced after learning this ‘new’ method was a shock to the system, and so obvious, looking back on his early learning experiences.
“I was never taught this stuff. Most teachers talked about the diaphragm, and just the diaphragm. I just had enough. I was blown away with the depth of detail about the vocal apparatus and mechanics and the acoustic ramifications of excessive effort. All of a sudden I had a map to my voice. That’s what it became to me. I hear someone speak or sing and my analysis can instantly tell me what their habits are.”
So why look into this? Many singers have bypassed this type of singing model and have done just fine, fine to the point of fame, respect and wealth. The chosen path to achieving a certain sound can be random, and those without voice fitness guidance can often head down the path to injury, which can’t be changed because of being committed to a certain sound as a basis for success. “I call it ‘high risk’, I don’t call it ‘wrong’,” says Marko.
“The problem is when you get famous for a sound, you have to keep it up. If Steven Tyler or Rod Stewart suddenly start singing cleanly, their fans will wonder what’s wrong with them. The safest sound is a clean sound, however. What rock singers need to understand is that if they look at their little fingernail, that’s how big their vocal folds are. If you blow litres and litres of air through a passage that is only that big, you’re going to do damage.”
The cycle continues with some of today’s most successful artists.
“Some of the most popular singers around today are in terrible trouble. One in particular has haemorrhaged. This singer just kept doing the gigs. And of course singers want to copy their sound, and that makes it really difficult. When you’re a self-trained singer and you copy singers that are actually quite healthy, you copy a healthy technique. You develop that technique without even knowing.”
And it’s not all real, so don’t hurt yourself trying! On the radio, there’s vocal-enhancing technology afoot…
“If I listen to the top 40, it’s so overproduced and that becomes normal to listen to. We’re getting used to perceived perfection. Like in a glossy magazine, we know the girls don’t really look like that, and on the radio, they don’t really sound like that.”
Marko understands how difficult the transition to the model could be for any potential student, but he is equipped with having experienced it himself. His beginnings with applying the Estill model caused some surprise.
“I had a really successful career in music theatre, but in the beginning I couldn’t do the initial exercises.”
Physically, there are also changes that a new student will eventually notice and Marko has been there and done the transitions, from being a straining rocker to a comfortable and economical singer himself.
“The first thing I noticed is that my body was confused. The body has muscle memory, so it recognised certain melodies and wanted to react a certain way, which were restrictive.”
Just like any other art form, singing also requires basic skills.
“Every instrument is easiest to learnt if you separate craft, artistry and performance. Craft is the development of a biomechanical skill that focuses solely on the physiology of your instrument. The first lesson for clarinet, for example: you take the instrument apart and put it back together.”
Marko specialises in teaching the craft, but stresses he is not prophetising about his way being the only way.
“There is nothing wrong with other models. If they work for you, that’s great. Is it fun, is it easy? I teach craft. The Estill model is not against other models, but it’s complimentary to them. It’s not personal, it’s not semantic, it’s just mechanics.”
This doesn’t mean that good techniques in the vein of Estill can’t work in even the most demanding rock band situations. One of Marko’s all time favourite vocalists may come as a surprise.
“One of my favourite singers is Mike Patton from Faith No More, simply because he can be so clean and so effortless and at the same time, in the next second, so distorted and so crazy. I love his ability and versatility so much.”
To find out more about Estill Voice Training and The Voice Gym, head to http://thevoicegym.com.au